The announcement that the sacked Conservative Party Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, was going to take over from Sarah Sands as editor of the London Evening Standard has been greeted with incredulity.
The presenter of the BBC’s Daily and Sunday Politics programme, Andrew Neil, initially thought it was ‘fake news.’
My threshold for being shocked just rose a little more: George Osborne new Editor of Evening Standard. And it’s not even fake news.
— Andrew Neil (@afneil) March 17, 2017
When made Editor of The Sunday Times I was criticised because I hadn’t been an editor. Mr Osborne hasn’t even been a journalist.
— Andrew Neil (@afneil) March 17, 2017
Guido Fawkes responded almost immediately and cited eight potential conflicts of interest:
Guardian opinion writers have been heavily critical.
Marina Hyde quipped: ‘His ascent to the Evening Standard continues the trend of people who used to be journalists cocking up the country, and people who cocked up the country becoming journalists.’
Aditya Chakrabortty moved from satire to serious reflection:
At least in banana republics they grow their own bananas. Joke all you like about George Osborne being made editor of the Evening Standard. Satire is, after all, the last refuge of the powerless. But once the gags peter out, the fact remains: his appointment is bad for the press, for politicians and for democracy.
The Observer’s Peter Preston, a former veteran editor of the Guardian, put the whole matter into perspective by defining Osborne’s ‘banging in’ as more of a trophy appointment:
No: George will pen a few words, front a few Lebedev cocktail parties and pocket a few hundred thousand pounds, burying the remains of a once glowing political career. The perfect PR symbol of our times: a fake newspaper editor.
Journalism Professor Angela Phillips of Goldsmiths, University of London looked at the continuing domination of Conservative politics across the media landscape:
With Osborne running his own newspaper will we see the Evening Standard focusing on the continuing row within the Conservatives about the handling of Brexit? How will the paper, under his stewardship, report efforts to correct the impact of damaging housing policies that have seen the disappearance of genuinely affordable housing in the capital? Those are policies which he not only backed but, in some cases, initiated.
The puppet-master in this extraordinary affair is undoubtedly Standard owner Evgeny Lebedev.
Professor Phillips quite rightly pointed out he clearly influenced the Independent’s decision in the 2015 General Election to root for the Conservatives despite the paper’s ‘editorial line and expectations of young liberal readership.’
Press Gazette’s Dom Ponsford said: ‘This is not good news for media plurality, or the idea that national newspapers should broadly reflect the diversity of political opinion in the UK public.’
The Professional journalists’ view
The Institute’s focus must be on the significance and problem his appointment has for professional journalism.
As the Guardian editorial said: ‘Osborne knows next to nothing about active journalism. His desultory debut there, a Times shopping column about the price of Christmas goodies in 1993, wins no awards.’
One only has to imagine the perception of Standard reporters and subs who have years – in some cases decades – of journalistic education, training and experience, when they learned who was going to be their new boss.
The reaction to Mr Osborne’s address in the Standard newsroom indicated a mixture of shock and politeness.
Peter Preston said you might as well make Richard Littlejohn Chancellor of the Exchequer.
The difficulty is that Osborne’s Standard new jolly is rather like appointing as Field Marshall or Admiral somebody who did a few weeks in their school cadet force.
Or asking somebody who got a moderate mark in GCSE biology and dissected a toad and a rat to become Professor of brain surgery at one of our finest medical schools.
This is far-removed from the appointment of the outgoing Standard editor to be at the helm of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme having had no experience of producing any radio journalism anywhere before.
Sarah Sands is like her new Journalism chief at the BBC, James Harding.
He also arrived from the world of multimedia newspapers, in his case editorship of the Times, with no track record in broadcasting.
What they both share is exactly what Osborne lacks: the fundamental hinterland of journalistic professionalism, editorial leadership, experience of coping with complex, business, legal and political pressures and making the right judgement calls day after day after day.
And Mr Osborne’s lack of journalistic qualifications, experience and authority is unlike those newspaper editors in history who have also been MPs.
Politicians and editors – the historical context
The Guardian had to qualify its analysis of the Osborne appointment with the knowledge that its influential editor, C. P. Scott, actually edited the Manchester Guardian in his early years while sitting as a Liberal MP in the House of Commons.
But this was at a time in the late 19th century when daily newspapers were much more aligned with political activism.
Scott’s homily ‘Comment is free…but facts are sacred,’ endures as the branding banner for the paper’s current Opinion section.
The former Labour cabinet minister, Richard Crossman, edited the New Statesman, but not while he was in government or even on the opposition front bench.
When he took over the weekly periodical in 1970, he had a background of longstanding political journalism and assistant editing stretching back to the 1930s.
When Bill Deedes edited the Daily Telegraph from 1974 to 1986 he had stood down as an MP and it had
been many years since he was in the Cabinet.
And again he was no stranger to the reporting craft.
At the age of twenty-two he covered the second Italo-Abyssinian War in 1936.
It’s been frequently said he was an inspiration for Evelyn Waugh’s foreign correspondent William Boot in the famous satirical novel Scoop.
The role of editor in British journalism should remain the pinnacle of professional journalistic achievement.
It needs to be respected as the goal, aspiration and dream of a career in journalism.
It deploys political, social, and cultural power and the position usually commands significant rewards in terms of salary and reputation.
The George Osborne and Evening Standard affair risks trivialising, mocking and compromising the vital role that professional journalistic media should have in our society.
While it might be a boon to those sections in the Conservative Party who have an agenda in relation to Prime Minister Theresa May’s government, it is unlikely to bring many benefits to British journalism.